Digital cameras have gotten a lot better (and more affordable) in recent years. You don't really need a special Macro (close-up) lens to take decent pictures anymore.
I don't take pictures professionally, but I'd recommend using:
- A digital camera with a macro mode. I have a new'ish < 200$ point and shoot camera (Olympus Stylus 1050SW). The technology is developing so fast that a cheap'ish new camera is probably better than an expensive one that is half a decade old. A too cheap camera probably won't have enough manual settings though.
- A tripod or some stable support. This will allow you to take long exposures without blurring the image. In poor light conditions, support for the camera is a must.
- A selftimer. When you push the trigger you might nudge the camera, making the picture blurry. Using a trigger delay remedies this. It's usually a clock icon on one of the camera's buttons.
- A low ISO - this is film speed / sensitivity. There's usually a setting for it somewhere. A high ISO means more noisy pixels in the image, but it will allow you to use shorter exposure times, which is sometimes useful when taking action shots. We don't want noisy pixels though.
- Long exposure times. Miniatures don't move, and hopefully the camera doesn't either. You probably need to go into manual shooting mode or something to set this. With a long exposure you can use a lower ISO and take pictures in dim light.
- No flash. A flash usually produces this sharp shadow silhouette behind the figure, unless you bounce/reflect the light somehow. In photo studios they have these reflective umbrellas or big white boards which they bounce the flash against, but you probably don't have any of those.
- Decent light - perhaps from a window (white balance for cloudy weather works best here). If you're nocturnal like me, then you might have to settle for a working under a warm light bulb. White balance accordingly, or the image will come out looking mighty yellow/orange.
- A curved backdrop paper. I just use a white A3 paper which I curve up against something, but colored papers work as well. The paper reflects light into shadows and reduces shadow drops. I often lit my figure from top left and make sure there's lots of ambient light (reflected light coming from all directions). This to reduce sharp shadows.
- Focus depth and zoom. Some cameras have an 'F' setting. My current (point and shoot) camera only has a 3x zoom, and F 3.5 - 5.0. A high F value is good when shooting miniatures, because details at different depths will be sharp. With a low F value, parts of a miniature might blur. It takes some experimentation to get a feel for which distance to shoot from to get a sharp image. Basically, if you shoot the miniature at a distance, zoomed in, then the depth of the miniature is smaller than when you shot close up. However, at a heavy zoom undesirable optical effects can show up.
- The histogram. It's basically a bar graph which shows the amount of pixels of different brightness. When you shoot against a white background you'll see a large hump on one side of the graph. Ideally the hump should be close to the edge - not outside the graph or too far towards the middle.
Also make sure to take a couple of images using different settings, then pick the best one. Exposure, white balance and sharpness can be difficult to get right if you're in a hurry.
Editing the image
While professionals might want to tweak their photos manually in Photoshop, the automatic functions such as 'Auto Levels' and 'Auto Color' are easy to use and works pretty well. I think Gimp (a free image editor) has similar features. Just make sure you've included something pure white and pure black in the image (which you can crop away later). It gives the algorithm some reference points to work with.
This is a simple setup with a curved paper. If you work close to a window, or outside during a cloudy day, you wont get as much nasty shadows. Indoor lights tend to be high up, and mostly light the figure from one angle (the top). This makes the figure hard to read, and I find it difficult to paint in this light as well.
Indoor lights are very yellow. If you forget to white balance properly, you'll get a result along these lines.
...and Photoshop's Auto Levels in effect.
White balance is better here, but it's a bit dark still (under exposed).
...and Photoshop's Auto Levels in effect. However, we still have some nasty drop shadows.
Here I've taped aluminum foil to the sides of a box, and curved a paper to the bottom-back. The caustic-like light spots disappear once you put a light in.
Shadows nearly gone! I think Auto Levels is a bit too extreme, so I 'Fade' the result a bit. It's important to not under expose or over expose the photograph too much in the first place, because it means vital information is lost in the dark or bright areas. An image editor can't fix that sort of thing, so it's better take a new photograph. There's also the risk of getting too edit-happy in the image editor, and end up destroying too much information that way.
- Niklas Jansson, 2009